Reviewed by Tsechu Dolma
The main themes that revolve around Lhamo family’s life are: poverty, suffering, filial devotion and education. The book has two parts, part one covering the narrative of Lhamo’s mother, Yeshe, and part two covering Lhamo’s narrative. Lhamo’s mother was born in 1967 and Lhamo’s great-grandmother was born in 1900. It is not clear when Lhamo’s grandmother was born, she died in 1970. They all lived in Brag’go County.
The two different parts show the changes the family has lived through. The author recollects her and her mother’s memories like a fairy tale with emotions ranging from suffering to love.
Poverty and Suffering
Yeshe’s early life is marred with tragedies as her mother and brother died in an earthquake at home. There are many scenes of crying and longing. Her father almost becomes delusional with grief. She expresses the pains of growing up without a mother.
In contrast, Lhamo’s narrative does not stress suffering. She is afflicted with poverty; however, she never associates it with suffering. Instead Lhamo constantly highlights the happiness she experiences with her family.
Poverty is shown through material objects such as shoes, clothing and their living standard. Lhamo constantly mentions the state of her shoes. While she was growing up, she had only one pair of shoes at a time and most of the time they were very old. Once, her shoes were so old that they completely fell apart on the road home. Her neighbors and friends give her their old shoes. When something good happens, such as a cash inflow, Lhamo and her brother get new shoes.
The importance of family is heavily stressed throughout. Lhamo recollects her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother’s memories. There are family dramas such as refusing to allow love marriages, but in the end family unity triumphs over all. Lhamo’s stories are filled with how her parents and grandfather took great care of her. She is spoiled by her grandfather and her parents. In return, Lhamo promises her parents that she will become a successful woman and will take care of them. She also promises her family to take them on an airplane to the United States one day.
Importance of Education:
During Yeshe’s time, there were not as many educational opportunities as Lhamo has had. Yeshe did not have many years of educational training; instead she got married and had children at a young age. Lhamo’s narrative covers part two of the book. In some ways, the two different mother-daughter narratives are there to show the reader how times and opportunities have changed in these Tibetan areas. Lhamo’s story arc develops around her educational experience. She begins with elementary school in her county. As a primary school student, Lhamo sometimes has to miss school to help her parents harvest the yields.
Lhamo despises missing school and enjoys ranking first in her class. She studies hard and is a very studious student because she understands that education is key to improving her family’s livelihood. Lhamo’s hard work is also due to her family’s inability to pay for tuition; in order to receive scholarship, Lhamo has to be top in her class. Her parents also actively encourage her educational endeavors because they did not have the opportunity.
Lhamo’s family members have to make sacrifices in order to put her through school. Her academic pursuits nonetheless leave a labor gap in her household, as she is away in school most of the time. Lhamo’s younger brother discontinues his schooling after middle school and works to feed the parents and grandfather. Her family also sells off their only home so that Lhamo can get money to travel to school.
What is missing?
Throughout the book there are no social or political events mentioned at all. Aside from the Tibetan rituals, the book’s setting and events can be transferred to any rural community in the world. It almost seems like the book is existing in a sociopolitical vacuum.
The only policies that effect Lhamo’s family life is that if children do not attend nine years of schooling then parents are fined, and locals are not allowed to cut down trees from the forest for fuel. There seems to be significant family history that is omitted due to political sensitivity, since the author or the author’s family continues to live in Tibet.
It would have been very interesting to see how the minority language instruction policy changes in Sichuan province affected the author and the author’s parents schooling. It would also be interesting to think about how the author’s narrative might have been different if her whole family lived in the US as exiles. Maybe the missing sociopolitical issues could have be raised in such a context?
There are extensive descriptions and explanations of Tibetan ritual practices and lifestyle that lead me to believe that this book was intended for a western audience. An audience who is looking for an introduction to Tibetan culture through reading a young Tibetan woman’s coming of age story. There were many basic descriptions, including how Tibetan nomads live and how religious divination plays a significant role in decision making. The copious cultural explanations run the risks of turning Tibet and Tibetan people into something that is exotic and not relatable to the common reader.
There are also elements in the story that are present for social awareness reasons such as the poor health care infrastructure, the low income deterring educational access beyond nine years of schooling, maternal and neonatal mortality and women’s issues. Lhamo stresses the gender construct in traditional Tibetan culture, which oppresses women.
Lhamo’s coming of age story shows the reader how hard work and education can pave the way to exit cyclic poverty, even if one grew up Tibet. Arriving in the US and receiving a funded scholarship to a four year college is the happy ending in the story.
There is also a basic fairy tale aspect in how the author frequently bluntly states her life story, without filling the narratives with real life cinematic details and flavors. It is obvious that the book was written for the purpose of quick consumption for an introductory reader to highlight the benefits of the Qinghai English Training Program.